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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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There is a bar in Greektown that used to be known as a prostitute bar, in local parlance a "whore spot." It has cleaned up since, but for a while a few years back the place was crawling with hookers. You could spot them easily, and you could spot their pimps even easier, sitting at the corner of the bar or in little corner tables, keeping a watchful eye on their employees. The bar was attached to a building that had a little single room occupancy hotel that didn't advertise hourly rates but would offer them if you asked. They were always being hassled by people from the City on building code violations and other stuff, so they accepted a bit of cash and exorbinant rates to give a john a room for a few hours.

Not too far was a joint with strippers and little else, where a fellow could buy oral sex or more for less than a fifty dollar bill. The "overhead" in keeping a place like theirs open was enormous, I was told, so the extracurricular activities were necessary.

A bar in the South Loop was renowned for having rooms for hire upstairs, and the waitstaff was supposedly composed almost primarily of whores who would take johns up a kitchen entrance to a room upstairs, and kick part of the take back to the place's ownership. A corner table near the entrance of the place was reserved for use by the owner's associates, who were reputed to be eastern European mobsters.

Down the street, in what used to be the Maxwell Street district before it was retrofitted as "University Village," shops in decrepit buildings ready for demolition sold stolen suits, shoes, and watches. Their suppliers were groups of hijackers who congregated at "private social clubs" on the city's far West Side. They would roll into the alleyways of the neighborhood and unload the stolen goods, stuff they'd stolen at gunpoint from delivery trucks that rolled up to their legitimate destinations at dawn.

The hijacking rings on the West Side hang out at the private social clubs because it provides a convenient layer to outside observation, and also makes it easier to serve liquor, since social clubs with paying members don't need to apply for liquor licenses, and even people with criminal backgrounds can own and operate them. Becoming a member, however, is usually not difficult. Often if you just ask they'll let you pay some inflated fee, and then you can come back whenever you like, although if you're an outsider they'll scorch you on drinks.

In these places, card games reach ridiculous stakes, sometimes as much as $8,0000 pots in a game of Texas Hold 'Em, which is a progressive poker game that can get out of hand easily. The places are drop-off points for thieves, where booty makes a very temporary stop while the appropriate fences are contacted and everything is disbursed.

The suits were nice, stuff that would go for $400 or $450 at a boutique, and the shoes were name brand -- often Stacy Adams -- that retailed for $80+. You could buy a suit and shoes for $250.

Although the vast majority of it has moved out into the inner ring of suburbs, Chicago is a vice city. Perhaps we don't have any more prostitution, theft, and illegal gambling than Los Angeles or New York City, but it sure seems like we do. And it isn't necessarily difficult to find, if you're really interested in finding it. And vice is certainly a social evil. It eats away at the fabric of civility, and spawns even more crime, and needlessly impresses men and women into a criminal subculture that can only end with their destruction -- and often the destruction of their families. Yet for many Chicagoans -- young, old, white black, whatever -- some little sliver of vice is perfectly acceptable and in fact convenient.

I knew a guy who took bets on horses, and his thing was he always rode the first car of the Blue Line train between Forest Park and Rosemont. He would sit in the first car with the day's racing forms, a pager, and a little notepad in his pocket and just ride the train all day. He had regular customers, many of them guys who worked in the industrial parks in the near suburbs, O'Hare workers, and downtown commuters who would get on the train and put a small bet down with him. He would ride the train from six or so in the morning until eight at night, taking only a few breaks to get a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and use the bathroom occasionally.

There was a spot near the Ida B. Wells Homes where one could roll up, barely stopping the car, and pick up heroin, marijuana or cocaine for relatively cheap and in complete safety -- an ice-cream cone stamp on the envelope ensured quality.

At the ABLA homes on the Near West Side, you could roll down Loomis Street and look for a character with a white beard and suit coat, and he would give you directions and instructions of picking up a small bag of cocaine for relatively cheap. All without leaving your car. See, convenient!

If you ask around Ukranian Village, you'll hear about an underground card, craps and roulette game that goes on above one of the local eateries. It is well-guarded and secret, but always open to new players if they seem on the legit. One can go and play a few games and have a few drinks, all for a small fee of a few hundred bucks in chips and whatever you lose. A similar game, but with larger stakes, used to go on every third Friday of the month in an extended stay hotel in Park Ridge, an Airport suburb. I found out about it from a guy who worked on a friend's car. He had a friend who owned a laundry in Portage Park or some place, and he was a big gambler who blew thousands at the game every month.

The underground economy in Chicago, when fenced goods, drugs, illegal gambling and prostitution are all added up, comes out to well over $1.5 billion a year. We may imagine a vast network of hardened criminals lurking in the background, moving in the dark of night and meeting in alleyways and conspire and rip people off, to peddle flesh or to push powders. The reality of it is, most of Chicago -- people you see every day -- take part in the little things that add up day after day. Sixteen-year-old kids from Whitney Young High School buying fake IDs. Bar owners buying cigarettes "wholesale" from traffickers. The guy at the party who offers you a hit of a joint or a bump of coke. The hard-working contractor who slips an envelope across a table at City Hall. And what about the thousands of ward residents willing to overlook blatant corruption and cronyism if it means their medians will be refinished, their garbage picked up on time, and their porch permit approved?

I knew a kid fresh out of UIC's Arts and Architecture School who was designing stonework for an architecture firm. His boss kept a separate Rolodex behind some files in a file cabinet. In it he kept the names of who exactly he needed to bribe in each region of the city to get zoning or other variance issues resolved.

Chicago has changed a lot over the last 15 years, mostly for the better. It has been manicured and cleaned up for the tourists and young professionals, to tempt them to move back. We have gone from the Vice City to the Lady on the Lake, but a manicure is just that -- cosmetic. It doesn't get to the ugliness beneath the surface, to the cancer that eats the bones.

GB store


Luke / June 16, 2004 11:49 AM

Where do you get the $1.5 billion figure? Does it include the buying and selling of city contracts?

Gambling on the blue line, rich kids buying fake IDs, craps games in the alley ... this is a cancer? Sounds like good, clean fun, the sort of thing that once made this city great.

Ramsin / June 16, 2004 12:17 PM

Oh, it is fun. I'm not taking a moral high ground. But that underground economy is definitely no good in what it drains from the city, and what it finances.

The $1.5b includes the $5-600,000,000 in annual drug sales throughout the city; the hijacking and illegal drug trade that finances; the $125,000,000 or so organized crime makes from gambling, plus the money from prostitution, which has various estimates approaching the hundreds of millions, the money made in illegal fencing and counterfeit goods sales--also in the tens to hundreds of millions--and then the money gained from city contracts and payoffs.

$1.5b is a high figure, but pretty close.

Luke / June 16, 2004 12:47 PM

But still I'm curious: Where are these figures from? Seems like an impossible thing to calculate or even guesstimate.

shechemist / June 16, 2004 3:17 PM

the drug guestimates can come from the steet value of drugs the police do seize. for every seizure, I have read 10 to 100 times as much is still in circulation. that said, I think the media, or the police inflates the value of what they bust.

Pete / June 16, 2004 3:36 PM

Human urges being as strong as they are, vice will never be legislated away. Thus the government is missing a huge revenue opportunity--vice is here to stay, so the government might as well make money off of it. Drugs, prostitution, sports wagering--legalize them all, and tax the bejesus out of them. Raise the market price through taxes, and you'll immediately see both an upsurge in government revenue and a decline in vice-related activity.

BigPimp / June 16, 2004 4:25 PM

I dropped my laundry off at Spin Cycle the other day and told the woman, "y'know...the oldest profession known to man, besides doing someone's laundry, is prostitution."

The woman did not appreciate the history lesson.

Go Pistons!!

Vit / June 17, 2004 8:57 AM

That is awfully brave of you to say to someone with whom you are leaving your clothes, you’ll be lucky if they come back the same color.

Kenzo / June 17, 2004 1:23 PM

Don't ever say "guestimate."

Scrappy Doo / June 17, 2004 5:13 PM

"Guesstimate" or "guestimate"?

w / June 19, 2004 11:41 AM

Who cares? The important thing is we now know where the hookers are.

John / June 19, 2004 6:22 PM

I don't see anything special about the vice here. Every city has drugs and hookers. And how can you say it "seems" like we have more than New York? Have you been there? Good article.

Ramsin / June 20, 2004 2:42 AM

You fiesty Irishman you. When I say it "seems" that way, I mean it is more a part of the "local color," at least since Giuliani. Of course every city has drugs and hookers--they're just so darned organized here.

druggie / September 8, 2004 11:54 AM

I am impressed at the city's heroin market! I use to fight the cancer pain i go through every day. Hey , if i go to rush pres hospital , they charge me 2000 dollars to give me morphine but hey , at 10 dollars a pop, I like it and dont mention the 2 for 1 fridays. and get this y'all morphine and heroin is the same thing!!! only it is illegal when brother man gets it for you but legal to pay out the butt at the hospital.
LONG LIVE HEROIN AND THE NICE YOUNG BOYS WHO SELL IT TO ME. ( oh and if any Narcs wanna ask me when and where, OVER MY DEAD BODY WILL I GIVE THEM UP) --a nice white kid from the suburbs and very affluent wrote this


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